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First-Year Arts Immersion links humanities courses to Dayton Philharmonic concert

By Dave Larsen

The First-Year Arts Immersion is a distinctive part of the University of Dayton experience, linking humanities coursework to an off-campus ballet, opera or symphonic concert in partnership with the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance.

“It’s a collaboration that I think is unique in the country,” said Jason Pierce, College of Arts and Sciences dean. “I am unaware of a similar type of partnership between an academic institution and an umbrella arts organization like DPAA.”

Now in its seventh year, the program will bring 2,639 undergraduate students to the Schuster Performing Arts Center in downtown Dayton on Oct. 18-19 for Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra performances of French composer Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, conducted by Neal Gittleman.

Commissioned in 1946 for the Boston Symphony — with no limitations on style, length or instrumentation — Turangalîla is an “amazing, unrestrained, extravagant, thrilling, beautiful, cinematic, over-the-top masterpiece of music,” Gittleman said, describing the 10-movement symphony during a spring faculty workshop.

An extended meditation on the joy of human union and love, Turangalîla ties into this year’s “love and madness” theme of the Humanities Commons — a connected set of courses that encourage students to consider a range of disciplinary perspectives to answer the question: “What does it mean to be human?” During the fall 2019 semester, Humanities Commons faculty from the Departments of English, History, Philosophy and Religious Studies, as well as the Core program, are incorporating aspects of the symphony, as well as the overarching theme of the arts as an essential part of the human experience, into their courses.

For example, religious studies professor Dennis Doyle played the opening moments of Turangalîla’s fifth movement to students in his introduction to religious and theological studies course. He then asked them to write brief reflections on the emotions being expressed in the music, and what type of action might be happening in a movie scene if that music was the soundtrack.

During the class discussions that followed, Doyle introduced the love and madness theme in connection with the symphony.

“One thing that I particularly liked about this exercise was that it shifted the theme of love and madness away from Messiaen’s biography, which I admit does have its importance, toward the music itself,” Doyle said. “The music expresses something of the experience of romantic love and the ‘madness and chaos’ that can accompany it.”

Messiaen’s first wife, Claire, had health issues and was institutionalized for many years, according to Gittleman. He wrote Turangalîla — which he described simply as a “love song” — for pianist Yvonne Loriod, who performed the symphony’s massive piano solo at the 1949 premiere and later became Messiaen’s second wife.

“This was no conventional love triangle,” Gittleman said. “Messiaen was a devout Catholic, as was Yvonne Loriod. They were definitely in love, but there was no actual affair, at least while Claire was alive. This is assuming that the scholarship, which was very circumspect, was true.”

Messiaen himself had synaesthesia, a neurological condition that results in a merging of human senses that aren’t normally connected. The composer said he perceived colors when he heard certain musical chords, and the combination of these colors was an important part of his composition process.

The Philharmonic’s performances will be accompanied by video projections of artwork by Bridget Caffrey, a senior graphic design major from Chicago, and Jack Hadley, a senior graphic design major from Cincinnati. They created the pieces under the direction of Department of Art and Design lecturer Kathy Weil Kargl.

“The idea here is to provide a visual corollary to hearing the symphony,” said Aili Bresnahan, associate professor of philosophy and Humanities Commons coordinator.

In addition, English and history faculty are connecting the symphony to the myth of Tristan and Isolde — a story of ecstatic, forbidden love that inspired Messiaen. Philosophy lecturer Patrick Ahern is connecting the event to Plato’s Symposium.

Stephen Schloesser, chair of the Department of History at Loyola University Chicago and author of Visions of Amen: The Theological Aesthetics of Olivier Messiaen, visited campus in September to present “The Joy of Stars’ Blood: Complicated Love in Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony” to faculty and students.

“For us to have this type of event where we are linking the humanities courses to this outside experience, where right from the get-go we are getting undergraduates downtown to see these artistic jewels of our city, is a terrifically important experience for our students,” Pierce said. “The creative collaboration between our faculty and the arts organization leaders make it all possible.”

The First-Year Arts Immersion is sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences, the Office of the Provost and the Office of the President. The Dayton Performing Arts Alliance includes the Dayton Ballet, Dayton Opera and Dayton Philharmonic.

For more information, please visit the First-Year Arts Immersion website.

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